The retinol train is going full speed ahead and if you haven’t made the leap yet, you need to get on board immediately. If you haven’t heard of the amazing effects of retinol or are still sceptical, here’s everything you need to know about retinol products and why they’re becoming a staple in skincare routines worldwide. I’ve also included five picks for the best retinol serum to give you a headstart in revamping your skincare regime.
A Beginner’s Guide to Retinol: Facts, Tips and How-Tos
What is retinol and do I need it in my skincare routine?
Retinol belongs to the family of retinoids, a term for topical vitamin A derivatives which include tretinoin and retinyl palmitate. That’s right, there’s more than one kind of vitamin A. The strongest ones are prescription products like tretinoin, tazarotene, and adapalene (though over-the-counter ones also exist). Retinol is easily accessible and you don’t need to go to a dermatologist to buy it.
Retinoids are used for acne and anti-ageing. They work by increasing cell turnover and promoting collagen production. Retinoids not only treat wrinkles and pimples, but they are also capable of minimizing the appearance of pores, improving skin tone, and fading dark spots.
Retinol, also known as retinaldehyde, is one of the weaker retinoid products and thus, is less harsh. Despite its skin-friendliness, you reap the same benefits as higher strength retinoids but sacrifice a bit of the wrinkle-fighting effects.
What are the benefits of retinol?
These are some of effects retinol has when applied topically. As you can see, it’s a well-rounded ingredient that targets a variety of issues.
- Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
Retinol is best known for its anti-ageing benefits such as smoothing out wrinkles and fine lines. That’s because it speeds up the time it takes for skin to produce new cells. The production of fresh cells slows down as we age but retinol helps enhance this so skin looks supple and bright again.
- Evens out skin tone
Retinol also improves skin texture because of increased cell turnover. Skin becomes smoother and discolouration is reduced.
If you’re struggling with dark spots and pimple scars, it can help you get an even skin complexion.
- Softens roughness
Retinol sloughs off the outermost layer of the skin, resulting in a refined texture or that retinol glow. It leads to an uptick in collagen and elastin production so skin looks plump and dewy.
- Banishes pimples
Retinoids were originally used to treat acne before its anti-ageing benefits were discovered. Aside from speeding up the turnover of superficial skin cells, it tones down oil production, which may help with blemishes. The exfoliating action unclogs the pores, which makes them look smaller.
What percentage of retinol is most effective?
Here are the strengths of retinol, ranked from the most gentle to the most potent.
Best for beginners: 0.01%-0.03%
These are the lowest concentrations of retinol. I advise you to start with this if you are not attuned to the sensitivity of your skin or if you’re completely new to using retinol. This is also perfect for people with sensitive skin to reduce the risk of irritation.
Best for people who want more effects: 0.04%-0.1%
When you want to take it to the next level, go for creams and serums with more advanced concentrations. If after a few weeks with the beginner percentage, you find that you don’t have any telltale signs of irritation like redness or peeling, you can bump it up to a higher percentage. This will give you more benefits for lines and wrinkles and other problems and you will see quicker results.
Best for people who can tolerate retinol well: 0.5% to 2%
This is the highest dose of retinol, which is great for tough skin that tolerates retinol very well. You have to be even more careful with adding this concentration to your routine because with a more potent dose, you also get more irritation. Remember, you will still get effects with a lower concentration, just at a slower pace so go slow and be patient.
How do I choose the best retinol serum?
If you’re using a retinol product for the first time, pick a low concentration to see how your skin fares before increasing the dose.
Check the percentage of the retinol on its label or the website. If the percentage isn’t indicated, it likely contains less than 0.25% retinol. You need at least 0.25% to get the most out of it.
Thick and oily skin types tolerate retinol better than thin or dry skin. If your skin is more resilient, you can use a higher concentration.
It cannot be emphasized enough that retinol can be harsh and drying. A serum or cream that contains moisturisers will soothe the skin and minimise irritation.
Aside from the correct concentration for your skin type, another important thing to consider is how well a serum is formulated. A 0.5% retinol with a nourishing formula can feel less harsh than a 0.2% retinol without moisturising ingredients.
Pick a serum that’s stored in a sealed airtight container such as a tube or a pump. This protects the ingredient from sunlight and air exposure, factors which degrade its efficacy. If the formula is stored in a jar, make sure the jar is dark or opaque.
What’s the best way to use retinol?
Even if you don’t use retinol, SPF should be a part of your skincare routine but it’s even more important when using retinol creams and serums. If you don’t religiously apply sunscreen, it can cause sun damage and reduce the retinol product’s effects.
Don’t use it during the day
Retinol products are always applied at night because sunlight makes the ingredient less effective. Start small but stay consistent with your application.
Build up slowly
Take a pea-sized amount of the cream or serum and dot or spread it all over your face. Distribute it away from your eyes, nose and mouth. Products tend to migrate as we sleep so you should take care not to apply it near these areas.
To start, use retinol twice or thrice weekly and build up to nightly usage. If you’re experiencing irritation, pare back your routine and give it time until your skin is in a better condition.
The 5 Best Retinol Serums – Australian Review
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid Emulsion 2%
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid, formerly known as Advanced Retinoid 2%, comes in a lotion-like consistency and is stored in a dark dropper bottle to preserve its potency.
While 2 per cent is the highest concentration of retinol, this is a moderate strength retinoid with a low level of irritation. It’s water-free, oil-free and alcohol-free so it’s suitable for both oily and dry skin types.
The emulsion contains advanced formulations of retinol with more anti-ageing benefits. It also uses a capsule delivery system which enhances the effects of the retinol.
The emulsion is well-formulated with a lightweight consistency. It moisturises and plumps up the skin to balance out the potency of retinol. It fades dark spots, crow’s feet, and lines.
I also like that it’s not scented, which may be a potential irritant for sensitive people.
It’s a low-cost retinol cream that’s great for beginners. If you have tried retinoids before, though, this may leave you feeling wanting because the results won’t be as fast as higher concentrations of retinol.
- Oil-free and alcohol-free
- Great packaging
- Moderate strength yet gentle
- Uses a unique delivery system
- Not for people who have used retinoids before
Drunk Elephant – A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream
If you’re looking for a moisturising vegan retinol serum, the Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream will be very much up your alley. It contains 1 per cent retinol and comes in a brightly-coloured squeeze tube.
Don’t get too worried about the potent concentration (1 per cent) because this is softened by the inclusion of kale, winter cherry, marula and jojoba oil. Even people with sensitivities and bouts of redness have attested that they enjoy the retinol’s formula.
With frequent use, the A-Passioni Retinol Cream will bring a glow to the skin and refine texture. It also helps to fade hyperpigmentation and acne scars. It also contains free radical-fighting xanthophylls and a skin-nourishing blend of peptides, perfect for eradicating signs of sun damage. Niacinamide helps minimise creases, furrows, and lines and reduces sallowness and blotchiness.
Because of its thicker consistency, it’s better for dry skin types. You still have to be careful about using too much too soon. I think this is too high of a concentration for beginners with sensitive skin.
Some people will find the price of this retinol cream hard to swallow (as is the case with some Drunk Elephant products) but it’s one of the best retinol creams in the market made by a trusted skincare brand.
- Stored in a tube
- Contains 1 per cent retinol
- Very moisturising
- Brightens the complexion and makes the skin smoother
- Contains oils, niacinamide and xanthophylls
- It’s an expensive retinol cream
- Not the best product for oily skin
Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Face Serum
This face serum is part of the Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 line which includes a moisturiser and an eye cream. This slew of products is formulated to deliver the effects of retinol while moisturising the skin, thanks to the power of glycerin.
If you’re looking for a good anti-ageing product at the drugstore, this is one of the best retinol serums. The serum contains a blend of retinol and retinyl propionate, a less potent retinoid with gentler properties. Olay has created this line with gentleness in mind because they discovered that more than half of women who used retinol stopped within a month.
This serum does everything a good vitamin A product does: smoothen fine lines, firm up the skin, fade dark spots and shrink pores. It’s a hydrating serum that uses vitamin B3 to complement the effects of the active ingredients.
Unlike some drugstore and high-end products, this is fragrance-free to minimise irritation. This OTC retinol is just as effective as high-end offerings and you can find it on sale frequently. I only wish they indicated the percentage of retinol in the serum.
Don’t expect rapid results with this serum because it most likely contains a very low retinol percentage. Try this if you’re dipping your toes in the retinoid world.
- Contains a retinoid complex that mixes retinol and retinyl propionate
- Filled with moisturising ingredients and vitamin B3
- Reduces wrinkles and fades dark spots
- No percentage indicated
Skinstitute always brings a solid range of products and that includes their retinol offering, one of the best retinol creams widely available in Australia. It uses an encapsulated form of retinol that preserves potency while reducing harshness. This is effective for both acne and anti-ageing.
Peptides give the cream a boost and stimulate collagen production which gives you bouncy, youthful skin. The product treats acne by regulating sebum production and encouraging the skin to produce new skin cells. It’s good for all skin types, especially if you’re dealing with pigmentation and signs of ageing.
It has a gel-cream consistency that’s a bit thick. Once you rub it into the skin, it stays tacky but leaves a powdery film, which some may like while others may loathe.
It’s also important to note that it has fragrance, which may irritate sensitive skin.
Another potential downside is the lack of moisturising ingredients. If you’re after a budget-friendly retinol cream, this is amazing but be sure to load of up on hydrating products after.
- Contains encapsulated retinol and peptides
- Has a gel-cream consistency
- Treats acne
- Increases cell turnover for smoother, brighter skin
- Contains fragrance
- The consistency is a bit tacky and takes some time to dry
- Not moisturising
Medik8 Retinol 3TR Advanced 0.3% Vitamin A Serum
The Medik8 Retinol serum is a beginner-friendly retinol serum with a 0.3 per cent concentration and one of the best retinol serums in Australia.
The serum is buffered by vitamin E, an antioxidant with anti-ageing benefits. Vitamin E also stabilises the retinol.
The Medik8 serum also contains a unique ingredient: climbazole. Climbazole increases the retinol’s efficacy without increasing irritation. It does this by preserving retinoic acid, the final form of retinol in the skin, which increases collagen production and cell turnover.
In effect, you’re getting 0.4 per cent retinol because climbazole boosts it by 0.1 per cent. This makes for a powerful serum that targets skin issues like wrinkles, crow’s feet, fine lines, and dark spots without causing over-drying and flakiness.
The serum has a silky texture, thanks to silicone. It won’t leave your skin feeling oily so it’s one of the best retinol serums for oily skin.
Users have seen improvement in spots and lines. The serum leaves skin remarkably smoother and brighter.
To protect the product from degradation, it’s stored in a dark amber dropper bottle. That being said, you’re only getting 15 mL of product, which makes the price quite steep. If it’s in your budget, definitely check this out.
- Contains 0.3 per cent retinol
- Also contains vitamin E and climbazole
- Fades dark spots and reduces fine lines and wrinkles
- Has a gentle formulation
- Silky feel and stored in a dropper bottle
- Quite expensive
- Not moisturising
The serum I love the most in this line-up is the Drunk Elephant A-Passioni. You get what you pay for. It’s such a high-quality and well-formulated retinol cream. The concentration is the perfect medium between effectiveness and potential irritation. It contains nourishing ingredients that complement vitamin A and it’s stored in a sealed, airtight squeeze tube. Take your beauty routine to the next level with this cream and the effects may surprise you (in a good way, of course!).